Who needs a transition team and Cabinet announcements? When political power changes hands in the world of “King Ubu,” Pointless Theatre’s smart, playful new offering, the switch-over principally involves a commode.
Resolved to wring maximum personal profit from the kingdom he has usurped, the antihero Pa Ubu eviscerates the country’s tax and legal systems. Then he executes the old regime’s nobility, judges and financiers. In director Frank Labovitz’s production, simple puppets with knobby heads and kerchief-like bodies represent Ubu’s old-guard antagonists. When it is time for the king’s anti-establishment rampage, the puppeteers toss the puppets to Colin Connor, who portrays the cruel, greedy, cowardly, foul-mouthed Ubu. He lobs the bodies into an onstage toilet.
The sequence epitomizes the scrappy resourcefulness of this production, whose homespun look and roughhousing energy are admirably suited to French writer Alfred Jarry’s landmark play. Now considered a precursor to surrealism and the Theatre of the Absurd, “King Ubu” (“Ubu Roi”) scandalized Paris when it premiered in 1896. Audiences were shocked by the play’s irreverence, nonsense language and profanity — the first word is an expletive — and more or less rioted in the theater.
The play originated as a lampoon of a teacher when Jarry was a schoolboy, debuting in an early version as a puppet play. So Pointless has sound authority not only for this production’s puppets (designed by Patti Kalil and Rachel Menyuk), but also for the overall schoolyard-clowning aesthetic. That aesthetic registers clearly in Connor’s portrait of Pa Ubu, a slinking, mugging, rubber-limbed bully who looks like a cross between a bored student’s doodle and Igor from “Young Frankenstein.”
After Ma Ubu (Haely Jardas) eggs him on, Pa Ubu engineers the assassination of Poland’s King Wenceslas (Sarah Wilby). The looting and killing that mark King Ubu’s subsequent reign eventually provoke a rebellion, led by Wenceslas’s son (Madeline Key, complementing the wild humor with valuable earnestness). Along the way, there are ghosts, battles, a visit to the czar (a drolly snooty Nick Martin) and an attack by a soon-to-be-eaten bear.
As these jokily melodramatic scenes flow around the set’s faux-stone platform fragments, the cast moves in a suitably stylized manner. Soldiers methodically hop off to battle. A prince jumps up and down during a sword fight. When characters quail in terror, their backbones turn concave. Ivania Stack’s costumes, including many sets of gray onesies, add to the aura of a smart-alecky nightmare. Meanwhile, musical underscoring performed onstage by music director Mike Winch injects breeziness and quirky suspense.
The production could stand some trims and tightening in its second half. (A Pointless Theatre press release credits Google Translate with rendering the original text into English. Fortunately, the script comes across as much more coherent than that attribution might suggest.) But overall, “King Ubu” displays estimable sly inventiveness put to the service of Jarry’s vision. A highlight is a scene that shows Pa Ubu and friends fleeing across the sea. Standing in for the sea are spritzer bottles, enthusiastically wielded by actors, and a couple of fish bowls.
The Mead Theatre Lab at Flashpoint, 916 G St. NW.
Dates: Through Jan. 7.